By almost any metric, the United States has the world’s most powerful military. It is expected to be prepared to answer any call by the US government in the pursuit of national interests—anywhere around the world and in any domain. The Army, as the military’s chief landpower service, is expected to be able to conduct a range of operations as broad as liberating enemy-captured cities in foreign lands to supporting civilian agencies at home, and everything in between. It must be trained and ready for the full spectrum of potential operations in any environment, especially the most complex environments—dense urban areas.
Conflict, instability, and political unrest are all more urban than ever before. Despite clear trends in the increasingly urban character of warfare, the US Army has not made any major changes to prepare for urban operations around the world. There have been no significant efforts to adapt its force design, force structure, or any other aspect of the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System DOTMLPF-P framework—doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy. To be sure, there have been recent minor changes to US Army urban operations doctrine, training exercises, and materiel developments, but these efforts do not match the scale of changes in the character of warfare and are far short of what is needed to make the Army ready for any mission in dense urban terrain.
This is despite numerous studies, reports, and articles on the Army’s lack of readiness for urban operations and public senior leader comments like those of Gen. Mark Milley, former Army chief of staff and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2016, he was clear: “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas. We need to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct. We’re not organized like that right now.”
In probably the most revealing criticism of the Army’s limited efforts to prepare for urban operations, both the 2019 and 2020 National Defense Authorization Acts stated that Congress is concerned with the Army’s lack of prioritization and resourcing to address the challenges of conducting military operations in complex, densely populated urban terrain. The 2020 NDAA further stated that Congress believes the Army should establish both an “Army urban warfare center dedicated to the study and research of urbanization, mega-cities, urban warfare, and military operations in dense urban environments” and an “urban warfare training center that focuses on advanced skills to fight, survive, and win in urban operating environments at the brigade level and higher.” The latter organization, the bill goes on to read, would “address the challenges associated with vertical, subterranean, and dense urban terrain, and the inclusion and integration of joint and interagency enablers.”
To fully meet the intent of the NDAA language, and in order to truly prioritize and prepare for the urban character of warfare, the Army should begin with several specific major initiatives.
Four Transformational Steps to Make the Army Ready for Urban Warfare
1. Create an Urban Operations Command
An urban operations command should be established to govern and provide oversight on all aspects of preparing the Army for military operations in dense urban terrain. Since the disestablishment of Joint Forces Command—and the Joint Urban Operations Office within it—in 2011, there has not been a major office in the entire US military with an urban operations focus. There is no executive agent for joint urban capabilities development, planning, or research. The US Army’s proponent for urban operations is the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, where urban operations is among a long list of critical areas against which time and resources must be prioritized. The Army has no command solely focused on urban operations. It has no major voice or decision-making authority for overall urban operations preparedness. An urban operations command would have proponency for all aspects of urban DOTMLPF-P development, advocacy, and integration.
The US Army has a Futures Command, Cyber Command, Information Operations (IO) Command, Space and Missile Defense Command, and Special Operations Command. It is past time for an urban operations command.
2. Create an Urban Operations Research Organization
The Army lacks a body of dedicated urban operations experts, scholars, historians, training developers, or researchers in both its institutional and operational force. It has not one research organization dedicated solely to the study of urban operations. Actually, in all of the United States, there is not a single government or academic center dedicated just to the study of urban conflict or warfare.
One of the few urban-focused academic research centers in the West is the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Urban Conflicts Research. Beyond that, there are a number of other pockets of excellence for civilian urban studies. Many colleges and universities offer urban studies degrees with focuses on everything from urban planning to history and geographical sciences to sociology. Many of these institutions have changed the way we look at and understand cities. But there are no research organizations in the United States, and especially in the US Army, dedicated to the study and research of political violence, conflict, and most importantly military implications of dense urban areas.
The Army’s knowledge needs far exceed just understanding how to operate in cities. It must also be able to understand cities as living organisms and as stakeholders in the international system that have a disproportionately strong impact on that system.
The Army lacks consolidated histories, vignettes, or training resources related to urban operations, which should inform not only doctrine but all aspects of the Army’s institutional military education and leader development pillars. There are only two professional education courses (one in the Army’s Command and Staff General College and one at the Army War College) specific to urban warfare, and both courses are electives.
To be sure, there are individuals and small offices that work on problems related to urban warfare. The Army Combat Capabilities Development Command has a long-term line of materiel development for urban warfare. There is also a short seminar in New York City where small groups are familiarized with urban considerations. And there are intelligence personnel that specialize in geospatial analysis and representation of urban terrain. But most urban warfare work is episodic. A conference, workshop, wargame, terrain walk, or study will be conducted, a report written, doctrine might even be updated—and then those individuals will go back to other work or move on to other assignments. These projects do not match the effort or results that a comprehensive research organization would produce.
3. Create an Urban Operations Combat Training Center
Almost all US Army units have sites on their posts where they can train what is referred to as “military operations on urban terrain.” The largest of such sites described in doctrine is the “combined arms collective training facility” (CACTF), with a recommended maximum of twenty-six buildings. The largest unit recommended to train on a CACTF is a battalion-sized formation, but a majority of home station training is usually done at a lower level. When training is conducted at these small sites, units overemphasize small-unit clearing operations. Large-scale combat operations in dense urban terrain will require proficiency in many other collective tasks.
Combat Training Centers (CTCs) are where the Army’s fighting formations, brigade combat teams, go to conduct their culminating collective training events. In times of war, the CTCs have been used as the certifying evaluation of a unit’s readiness to conduct its assigned combat mission—the mission readiness exercise.
There are only three physical CTCs in the US Army. The National Training Center (NTC) is in the California’s Mojave Desert, the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) is in Louisiana’s wooded swamps, and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) is situated amid the rolling hills and wooded plains of southern Germany.
NTC, at Fort Irwin, California, was created in 1981 primarily to train armored units and contains roughly seven hundred thousand acres of land. JRTC was moved from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas to Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1993. It serves primarily as a training venue for light infantry units and is about two hundred thousand acres. JMRC, in Hohenfels, Germany, was formed in 1987 to train Army units stationed in Europe with only a little over forty thousand acres of training area. Each of the CTCs hosts a wide variety of units, to include different services and nations, but they were designed to train specific types of units and to simulate very specific training environments. Most US Army units will rotate through JRTC or NTC every two years.
Since the early 2000s, NTC and JRTC have built urban sites within their training areas to simulate the populated terrain—cities, towns, and villages—in which Army units were operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each site ranges in size. The largest site at JRTC contains around forty buildings, with the tallest building standing three stories high. NTC has several large urban sites, the biggest being Razish, containing over six hundred buildings to include over sixteen that are three to five stories tall.
Unfortunately, NTC remains primarily a desert training environment and JRTC a wooded swamp. While both CTCs may have urban areas, the vast majority of a fourteen-day training rotation will happen in non-urban areas. The mission at NTC involving Razish will see units physically on the site for less than twenty-four hours.
The US Army needs an urban CTC where brigades will deploy into the urban environment for an entire fourteen-day rotation. They need to live, adapt, and fight urban.
The world is more urban than rural, and will only become more so. It’s time for the Army to start training in a way that reflects that reality. While rural desert, rolling plains, and wooded swamps may also be important, the training time balance needs to be adjusted.
4. Create an Urban Warfare School
The US Army trains in the woods or in the desert more than any other environment. This is, in part, simply a function of what training areas have historically been available to Army formations on very old installations. It is also a matter of priorities and training requirements.
For operating environments other than woods or deserts, there are schools to teach the specifics of special environments and conditions. There is a Jungle Operations Training Center, a Mountain Warfare School, and a Northern Warfare Training Center, which features multiple extreme cold weather courses.
The US Army does not have a school to train soldiers on how to fight, adapt, survive, or even understand the urban environment during all types military operations, (e.g., offense, defense, stability, and defense support to civilian authorities). The very few urban courses offered in the Army are narrowly specialized, oriented at, for example, engineers for urban breaching or Special Forces for urban shooting.
Even if you expand the definition of what constitutes an “urban” course, most US Army training outside of CTCs remains narrowly focused on shooting, breaching, close-quarters battle tactics, and raids.
The British Army has a three-week Urban Operations Instructors Course. The course is heavy on close-quarters battle, but also offers instruction on combined-arms maneuver, the use of armor, defensive tactics, urban warfare history, the subterranean environment, and more. While the course is only taught three times a year and only facilitates around seventy students per class, it is a good example of covering more than just shooting and breaching in army training.
The US Army has had units attempt to stand up short urban familiarization courses, but they come and go with unit leader interest. The ten-day Urban Combat Leaders Course, for instance, started and then quickly closed by the 10th Mountain Division.
Just as Congress is requesting, the Army needs a permanent, institutional, multi-week urban warfare course, fully resourced with a staff, researchers, and instructors that focus on the advanced skills needed to “fight, survive, and win in urban operating environments.” The school should offer individual train-the-trainer, unit, and staff-based courses. Content should include not only shooting, breaching, and close-quarters battle, but also how to understand urban environments, planning, urban warfare history, case studies, defense tactics, use of combined-arms and enablers, subterranean training, and urban survival.
Of the many reasons the Army has yet to take any of the above steps, financial cost is usually a focal point, specifically the cost of a realistic urban training site. When the Army has been pushed to do more for urban warfare—including by Congress—the response often includes a multi-million- or even billion-dollar construction estimate. But better urban warfare preparedness can be achieved without such massive financial outlays.
Currently, the Israeli and French militaries have better urban operations training sites than the US Army. After the completion of construction on their sites, the German and Singaporean militaries will too. The US Army, with its global interests, should be able to keep pace, and it does not necessarily need a billion-dollar urban warfare training site to do so. But it is especially poorly served by ranges that get opened and closed by training units on a semi-annual basis or by sites that might only get used twenty times per year. What the Army needs are soldiers and units proficient in urban warfare skills. There are many roads that could lead to that end.
The two best urban warfare training sites in the US Army inventory are the city of Razish at NTC and the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center (MUTC) in Butlerville, Indiana. MUTC is leased to the US Army, but operated by the Indiana National Guard. It contains one thousand acres of real urban terrain, including urban sprawl, traffic circles, a five-story hospital, a mile and a half of tunnels, a water-treatment plant, a bank, and prisons. All MUTC buildings are also fully equipped with real infrastructure—power, water, phone, and cyber. Unfortunately, MUTC is used by very few active duty combat-arms units.
Both NTC and MUTC have their limitations. NTC lacks the density and infrastructure of real urban terrain. MUTC lacks maneuver space and its road networks cannot support tracked vehicles. But both NTC and MUTC could be used to take one or more of the four recommended steps above. Razish and its surrounding areas could be cut away from NTC and turned into an urban operations CTC. MUTC could become the headquarters for an urban warfare school with individual, platoon, and staff courses that use the MUTC facilities. In fact, if resourced, the Indiana National Guard at MUTC could help the Army establish an urban warfare school. That is exactly what happened with the Vermont National Guard and the Mountain Warfare School. That school was established by the Guard in 1983 and, in 2003, became the United States Army Mountain Warfare School. The school was also designated the executive agent for military mountaineering and became responsible for teaching both active- and reserve-component soldiers.
An urban warfare research center could be formed with fewer than ten personnel. It could be embedded in any of the Army’s professional military education sites that conduct research on top of teaching—at West Point or the Army War College, for example. An urban operations research center could establish long-term relationships with other academic institutions already doing urban-focused research, such as Arizona State University and Columbia University.
A better, bigger urban warfare training site isn’t preventing the Army from taking most of the actions recommended above. Rather, it is about priorities and the allotment of resources like training time and personnel. Yes, money is needed, but that isn’t the only hurdle. If the Army prioritized urban operations, it would find innovative ways to do more than it is today.
Several additional actions could be taken in the near term that would both signal its prioritization of urban operations and begin to advance its readiness for this particularly challenging environment.
First, the Army should add urban operations to units’ METLs—mission-essential task lists. In one of the many studies highlighting the gaps in US military efforts to prepare for urban operations, Lt. Col. Kenneth Goedecke and Lt. Col. William Putnam found that none of the items on Army units’ METLs specifically dealt with urban operations. Without a mission-essential task specific to urban operations, units are not evaluated on urban warfare proficiency, nor are required to report to higher commands any urban operations training.
The Army has created urban collective training tasks in the past. For instance, Training Circular 3-90.5, Combined Arms Battalion Collective Task Publication contained the task “Conduct an Attack in an Urban Area (Battalion-Brigade),” but that publication is now inactive. If the Army was to give such a METL task to one or more brigades, it would spawn requirements for training resources, equipment, and venues, and would result in many lessons that could be shared across the Army.
Second, the Army should create an urban warfare–focused unit. As. Gen. Milley recommended four years ago, the Army needs “to man, organize, train and equip” for operations in urban areas. The Army could take an initial step toward that objective by assigning a brigade or division to focus on preparing for urban operations. This unit would have the ability to request changes to its modified table of organization and equipment as it learned and adapted itself to meet the requirements of urban combat. Despite the Army’s modular design, with its three general-purpose units—infantry, Stryker, and armored brigade combat teams—none of these are well organized or equipped for urban combat. Infantry brigades do not have the necessary mobile protected firepower, Strykers are not adequate in size or protection for dense urban terrain, and armored brigades do not have enough infantry. In fact, scholars argue that Army units in World War II were better designed and equipped for urban operations than modern military forces.
With just one unit training, experimenting, adapting, and modifying for large-scale combat operations in urban terrain, the Army could gain information on requirements it does not have today.
Finally, the Army should add an urban phase to the training soldiers undertake during Ranger School. This school teaches and tests leadership, small-unit close-combat tactics, and survival. The school currently teaches those skills in three environments: the wooded plains of southern Georgia, the mountains of northern Georgia, and the swamps of Florida. If the Army added or replaced a phase of Ranger School with one focused on urban environments, it would send ripples of urban knowledge and skills throughout the broader Army.
Urban areas are not special environments. They present fundamentally unique challenges to military forces operating in them. They are also increasingly home to armed conflict, a trend that will only continue and accelerate in the future. Just as David Kilcullen’s research has shown that war has moved out of the mountains and into cities, the US Army needs to move out of the woods and deserts and do more to be ready for the increasingly urban character of warfare.
John W. Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point, co-director of its Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Marcus Floyd, US Army